The first parts of this poem describe a poet, only referred to as “he,” and how this person could voice “the world’s absorbing beat.” But, as the poem concludes, it becomes clear that the world, rather than seeing this poet for who he was, only praised “a jingle and a broken tongue,” or the poems he wrote in dialect. He did not believe the right parts of his verse were being appreciated.
The Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar He sang of life, serenely sweet, With, now and then, a deeper note. From some high peak, nigh yet remote, He voiced the world's absorbing beat. He sang of love when earth was young, And Love, itself, was in his lays. But ah, the world, it turned to praise A jingle in a broken tongue.
Explore The Poet
‘The Poet’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar describes Dunbar’s dissatisfaction with the elements of his poetic output that were appreciated during his life.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by talking about a male poet who was intensely skilled. He had the ability to sing about Earth’s “absorbing beat” in thoughtful and appreciative language. His verse was filled with love, but the world did not see him in the same light he believed he should be appreciated. Rather than seeing his verse for its elaborate beauty, it only praised his “jingle in a broken tongue.”
The major theme of this poem is writing/creativity. Although this poem is only eight lines long, throughout these lines, Paul Laurence Dunbar discusses his opinion of his literary output and how it contrasts with the way his verse has been appreciated by the public. He sees himself as an elegant, skilled, and literarily successful poet. But, the world, he thinks, only appreciates the verse he writes in dialect. It is a novelty that the literary world is not used to and which he is best known for.
Structure and Form
‘The Poet’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar is an eight-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. Or, in some iterations of the poem, divided into two quatrains, or four-line stanzas. The poem follows a rhyme scheme of ABBACDDC. The lines are perfectly rhymed, for example, “sweet” and “beat” in lines one and four, creating a clear and steady sound to the text.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “He” starts lines one, four, and five.
- Repetition: can be seen when the poet repeats an element. For example, “He sang of” at the beginning of line one and line five.
- Personification: can be seen when the poet imbues a non-human element of their poem with human characteristics. For example, “And Love, itself, was in his lays.”
- Juxtaposition: occurs when the poet places two contrasting or different, ideas or images next to one another. For example, “serenely sweet” life and the “deeper note” of life.
He sang of life, serenely sweet,
With, now and then, a deeper note.
From some high peak, nigh yet remote,
He voiced the world’s absorbing beat.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by describing a male figure—“He” who sang “of life, serenely sweet.” With the title taken into consideration, it’s clear that the speaker is talking about a male poet (it is later revealed to be Dunbar himself).
It’s clear from how the speaker describes this person that he was a particularly effective writer who created very memorable pieces of poetry. It should be noted that rather than speaking about this person writing, the speaker describes them as singing. This is a common practice, especially in more classical poetry, in which a poet is described as a singer, a bard, and more.
This specific poet was capable of voicing “the world’s absorbing beat.” In his verse, he conveyed the nature of the world’s heart. This suggests that he was incredibly skilled and through his control of language could speak about humanity in an effective and meaningful way.
The writer creates examples of juxtaposition in these lines by describing the “deeper note” the poet sometimes reached and how he is “serenely sweet.” Such is the nature of the world itself. The speaker also describes a “remote peak” from which the poet’s sung his verse. It was “nigh yet remote.” Here, the poet uses outdated language to describe the peak as close yet distant.
He sang of love when earth was young,
And Love, itself, was in his lays.
But ah, the world, it turned to praise
A jingle in a broken tongue.
In the fifth and sixth lines, the speaker continues to discuss the nature of the poet’s work. He “sang of love when earth was young” so much so that one could say that “love, itself, was in his” works. The poet uses the outdated word “lays” in this line to describe the poetry. This connects to his use of the word “nigh” in the first few lines.
By suggesting that love was in the poet’s creations, readers should easily imagine, again, how evocative this person’s work was. But, the world did not see the poet for who he was or respect him in the way he believed he should be respected. The world that he praised so beautifully turned, heard the poet’s lays, and rather than respecting them as elegant pieces of poetry, praised them as “a jingle and a broken tongue.”
It is at this point that it becomes far easier to relate the lines of this poem to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s reality. He saw himself as “the poet” in these lines, someone who created elegant verse but was only praised for his use of dialect (something that was still novel in poetry). He wrote poems like ‘The Poet,’ which (certainly in this case) were meant to convey his skill with language and understanding of what works in poetry. But, only his work that utilized dialect was being remembered. He was a novelty rather than a respected writer.
Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote this poem to air his grievances against the world, which refused to respect him in the same way that it respected white poets of a similar skill level. Dunbar could write as elegant, skilled, and beautiful verses as his white counterparts, but, as a Black man, the literary world only paid attention to his verse written in dialect.
Dunbar’s best-known poems include: “To a Capacious Critic,’ ‘Harriet Beecher Stowe,’ and ‘One Life.’ But, his most famous poem is likely ‘We Wear the Mask.’ It is still read by students, teachers, and poetry lovers worldwide.
Dunbar self categorized his poems as “Major” and “Minor” poems. The latter referred to those written in dialect, while the former was in standard English using classical poetic traditions.
Throughout his lifetime, Dunbar published around 400 poems. Today, he is regarded as one of the most important poets of his generation.
He was born in Dayton, Ohio, where he attended public school. He was the only African American in his Central High School class. Without enough money to go to college, he worked various jobs and began writing.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider exploring some other Paul Laurence Dunbar poems. For example:
- ‘By the Stream’ – a contemplative poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar describing how things are often not what they seem.
- ‘Harriet Beecher Stowe’ – speaks about the writer in thoughtful detail.
- ‘One Life’ – talks about how sad and disappointing the poet’s life is.